Minnesota Attorney General's Office
1400 Bremer Tower
445 Minnesota Street
St. Paul, MN 55101
M - F 8 am - 5 pm
Contests have been around for ages. In fact, a contest offered by Napoleon Bonaparte prompted the creation of canned foods. During the 18th Century, Napoleon faced many challenges in achieving his goal to dominate Europe. One challenge was how to feed a large and widespread army. Food would spoil before it could be served to the hungry troops. In order to solve the problem, Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs to the person who could come up with the most innovative new method to store food. In 1809, Nicolas François Appert developed a method of boiling and sealing food in glass bottles. The technology caught on quickly, with tin cans substituted for glass a few years later.
Unfortunately, not all contests spur innovation. Today, sweepstakes are solicited through the mail, online advertisements, phone calls, text and e-mail messages. Many of these solicitations are deceptive promotions designed to bilk consumers out of hard-earned money.
Deceptive Sweepstakes Offers. Many sweepstakes mailings mislead consumers into believing that they have won a prize or that their chances of winning will increase if they buy something from the sweepstakes company. At first glance, the mailings may appear to announce that you are the winner--but a closer look reveals a scam.
Over the years, sweepstakes scams have taken the following forms:
Advanced Fee Sweepstakes. In this twist, a consumer receives a solicitation claiming that the consumer may win a large amount of money if he or she pays a fee to enter into the sweepstakes. The fee may be in an odd amount, such as $19.99. If the consumer responds and pays the fee, he usually never hears from the company again. Or, at best, he may receive nothing more than a list (not worth the cost of the paper it’s printed on) of sweepstakes he could enter.
Sweepstakes to Sell Products. A consumer may receive a notice claiming that they are eligible to win a prize. The mailing may also offer a variety of products for sale. The consumer may feel that if they purchase a product, they will increase their chances of winning. In fact, it is illegal for a company to link the purchase of a product to an increase chance of winning a prize.
Sweepstakes Boilerrooms. In this version, a consumer receives a mailing with prize numbers and a phone number to call. A consumer who calls may face a high-pressure sales pitch for a product like a vacation or trip.
Foreign Lottery Scams. Foreign lottery scams mail an unsolicited notice to a consumer claiming that he or she won a lot of money. The mailing includes a counterfeit check that is supposedly to help pay taxes or fees on the winnings. By the time the consumer discovers the fraud, she has already wired real money to the scam artist.
Phishy Sweepstakes. In an online version of the scam, a consumer receives an e-mail or sees a pop-up advertisement claiming he or she won a prize. The “sweepstakes,” though, is just a ruse by an Internet scam artist. By clicking on the advertisement or link, a consumer’s computer could be infected with spyware, a virus, or malware.
Telephone Spoofing. Many consumers who are registered on the Do Not Call registry report phone calls by telemarketers offering a consumer the chance to enter a sweepstakes. These unscrupulous telemarketers use “caller ID spoofing” to falsify the telephone number and/or name relayed to a consumer’s caller ID. This technology makes it appear as though the scammer is calling from a local area or even a reputable company. The prize is used to get the consumer’s attention, after which the telemarketer pitches an unwanted product or outright scam.
Avoid Sweepstakes Scams. One of the best defenses against scams is to be an informed consumer. To avoid sweepstake scams, you should know that:
- Some businesses use sweepstakes offers to sell consumers goods or services and to attract consumers’ attention to the products or services they sell. You do not have to order merchandise or pay any money to enter a contest or sweepstakes. In fact, your chances of winning without a purchase are the same as the chances of someone who buys something.
- Never pay money to win a sweepstakes. It is illegal for a promoter to ask you to pay money or buy a product to enhance your chances of winning.
- Do not give out your personal information, credit card number or checking account number to an unknown solicitor. This information is never required to enter a legitimate contest.
- Remember, if you really win a “free” prize, you will get it absolutely free, with no strings or fees attached.
- In every telemarketing call involving a prize promotion, federal law requires that the telemarketer tell you:
- The odds of winning a prize.
- That no purchase or payment is required to win a prize or participate in a prize or promotion.
- How to participate without buying or paying anything.
- What the conditions you will have to meet to receive or redeem a prize.
- Do not be deceived by letters that look official or urgent. Some solicitations use names that resemble official organizations. It is illegal to misrepresent an affiliation with or an endorsement by a government agency or other third party.
- Read the solicitation carefully, including the fine print. If you need a magnifying glass to find the truth in advertising materials, there are probably strings attached.
- Sweepstakes are games of chance. If you enter, your entry will have the same chance to win as every other entry. No one knows who the winner is until after the sweepstakes ends.
Want to Get Off Mailing Lists? Some sweepstakes operators sell and trade mailing lists. If you pay money to win a prize, you’ll probably get on other scam mailing lists. If you want to have your name removed from marketers’ mailing lists, you may wish to take the following steps:
- The Federal Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act requires any promoter that mails sweepstakes offers to remove a person’s name from its mailing lists within 60 days after receiving the person’s request.
- Request removal of your name from marketers’ unsolicited mailing lists by writing: Direct Marketing Association’s (“DMA”) Mail Preference Service, 1615 L Street, Washington, D.C. 20036 or www.dmachoice.org. If you contact the DMA, your name will be removed from all DMA-member lists for five years. It may take up to three months for you to see a decrease in the amount of mail you receive, and you will still receive mail from businesses and organizations that do not belong to the DMA or use the DMA’s Mail Preference Service. You will also continue to receive mail from companies and organizations with which you have a business relationship.
For more information, contact the following agencies:
Federal Trade Commission
Consumer Response Center
600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20580
Toll free: 1-877-382-4357
Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson
1400 Bremer Tower
445 Minnesota Street
St. Paul, MN 55101
TTY: (651) 297-7206